Tag Archives: headlines

How to write a claim quote

16 May

Breaking:

A US Congressman has shocked Capitol Hill by claiming to know the identity of crimefighting hero Superman. Hank Bystander (D-NY), whose congressional district covers southern Midvale in Metropolis, told a hearing of the newly formed House committee on media ethics: “It’s no secret in the neighbourhood. We know who Superman is. He’s another damn journalist. His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.”

This is a somebody-said-something story. It’s on the record, from a person of substance, and unquestionably attention-grabbing; but it comes without any supporting evidence. It is, to use the laconic phrase heard on the Tribune newsdesk, “interesting if true”. So the display type will not announce CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN in the newspaper’s own voice: it will attribute the claim to the person who said it, and leave readers to judge for themselves.

How will it do that? There are a couple of options. The first headline option (Type A) is the splashy, read-me, direct-speech quote:

CONGRESSMAN: ‘WE KNOW WHO SUPERMAN IS’

This is beyond reproach: the quote is verbatim, the attribution explicit. The only problem with using a direct quote is that, as here, natural speech doesn’t compress all the news into the very short sentence you need. So you could take the more informative option (Type B) of reported speech plus attribution:

SUPERMAN IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST, SAYS CONGRESSMAN

The congressman did not actually utter the phrase “Superman is Daily Planet journalist”, of course, in crisp headlinese. He said: “His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.” But this is reported speech, not direct speech, and the paraphrasing of reported speech is uncontroversial, as long as it accurately reflects the sense of what was said.

And then, in the British headline tradition, there is a third option. In the UK, it is further permissible (almost always for reasons of space) to take that headline, remove the attribution and put the claim, in its paraphrased form, back into quotes to create a claim quote:

SUPERMAN ‘IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST’

It is sometimes thought that claim quote headlines are a cavalier, irresponsible form of Type A headline, in which a direct quote is rewritten to suit the newspaper’s purposes and passed off as another’s words. In fact, what they are – or should be – is this: truncated Type B headlines. The key test of a proper claim quote headline is not that you can find the exact quote somewhere in the story, but that you can reverse-engineer it into reported speech plus attribution using the information in the opening paragraphs.*

How, then, can you tell a claim quote from an actual quote? In British headline culture, the most significant clue is the presence of quote marks but the absence of attribution. Type B headlines, of course, do not need quote marks at all, and even in the UK, readers would be disappointed to see a Type A headline – quote marks and an attribution together – if the quotation was not verbatim from the source. Quotes are the lifeblood of journalism in the UK as they are everywhere else – the Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan once sourly observed that he saw media interviews as a reductive game in which journalists would try to get him to use a certain word: if he avoided saying that word, he won; if it slipped out, he lost. Accordingly, the presence of a direct quote and an attribution together in a headline is usually an indicator of a journalistic “victory” of this type, where the story is that a public figure has used a newsworthy turn of phrase.

However, to British readers, an unattributed quote does not primarily indicate the presence of speech, but the presence of a claim. If the quote happens to be verbatim, then so much the better; but either way its significance is the same. The likeliest purpose of an unattributed quote in a headline is to signal the newspaper’s reservations about its veracity. The presumption is that unattributed quotes in Fleet Street headlines rarely indicate speech; they almost always indicate doubt.

* This is the key measure of viability, but not the only one; HeadsUp has been collecting a number of claim-quote heds that scrape through this test but fail on wider grounds of comprehension or readability. Claim quotes may be widespread in British journalism, but they’re not exempted from the normal rules of syntax. 

You ‘can’t say that’

2 May

Years ago – and this is pre-YouTube, so I’ve been searching in vain for clips – there used to be a segment of a British satirical news quiz that revolved entirely around putting claim quotes in headlines.

I have a distinct memory of Dara O Briain being in charge, so perhaps it was a round on Mock The Week. Anyway, what would happen is that utterly scandalous, defamatory headlines about eminent people would flash up onto the screen, and the contestants would have to insert claim quotes around the most damaging parts to avoid their imaginary newspaper being sued for libel. The more of the headline you could let stand outside the quotes, the more points you got: those who played it safe and put the entire thing in quotation marks were greeted with jeers and cries of “Cowards!” from the chair.

The fact that this idea could ever form part of a national light entertainment programme says a lot about how well understood claim quotes are in the British public imagination. But it also reveals something slightly more worrying: a perception that claim quotes are not just a way to signal a newspaper’s distance from allegations, but a magic device that can be deployed to bamboozle lawyers, avoid editorial responsibility, or quarantine any phrase you’re not quite sure of.

Which is perhaps why we sometimes end up with headlines like this:

The saga of the young people who paid thousands to attend a de luxe event in the Bahamas only to find themselves trapped in ramshackle tents and fed packed lunches has been all the rage on social media, so it’s not surprising the Telegraph has been looking into it. This is their headline, containing not one but two quoted elements, on their main news story last week.

The second quoted element, “mugged, stranded and hungry”, is a classic claim quote – which is to say, not an actual quote, but an allegation in reported speech placed within quotation marks to signal its contested nature. This is the headline convention that British TV audiences are familiar with: the shorthand that stands in for a full attribution, such as “claim customers” or “say unhappy youngsters”, that will be made clear in the text. As you read the story, you do indeed find third parties complaining of all three of those things, although the case for hunger is perhaps more understood than explicit.

The first quoted element, however, is a different matter. You can look up and down the story, and not see a single reference to either the Hunger Games or Rich Kids of Instagram. And to be clear, I don’t just mean that nobody says it verbatim: I mean that nobody says it at all – not in the embedded tweets, not in the quotes, not in the reporter’s own words. What appears to have happened is that the back bench has perceived the resemblance between the news and two evergreen memes – one relating to teenage excess, the other to teenage suffering – and boiled the story down to one pithy phrase in the headline. But if so, why is it in quotes?

You can certainly quibble with this characterisation. Yes, the victims are (probably) rich kids who (probably) use Instagram, but Rich Kids of Instagram (#RKOI), as originally conceived, is something more specific: an ostentatious photography series published by heirs of wealthy families showing themselves driving Ferraris, flying on Learjets or emptying bottles of Krug over their waterproof Rolexes. Many of the Instagram influencers who were reportedly paid to publicise this festival are a different breed: semi-celebrities or actual celebrities with large personal followings rather than unknown trust-fund babies.

Similarly, you may not feel that an amusing photo of a cheese sandwich justifies a comparison with the Hunger Games novels, in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death for food in a post-apocalyptic tournament. It’s a judgment call: you might decide that the popularity and social implications of the story justify a little hyperbole.

But the point is: quote marks aren’t going to help. This isn’t a claim, or even a report of a claim: it’s a commentary. Newspapers are fully at liberty to editorialise in headlines, of course, but they have to do it in their own voice. If you feel the characterisation is witty and apposite, take the quote marks off. If you feel you’re pushing it by making the comparison, don’t make it. This is your idea, your analysis; you’re not entitled to pass it off as somebody else’s.

As this blog has had occasion to say before, claim quotes do not exist for headline writers to signal doubts about their own work, or avoid the consequences of their own words. Claim quotes are for claims: claims made by other people. They’re a peculiarly British convention that other anglophone journalists don’t immediately understand: that’s not entirely surprising, since we don’t always get them right ourselves.

The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

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So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

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This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Is it a verb? Is it a plane?

7 Mar

Quite by chance, while trawling through the New York Daily News archives for last time’s post on baseball, I found two fine examples of one of the strangest phenomena in journalism: the “flying verb”.

When I first came across them, courtesy of Fred at HeadsUp, I found them utterly baffling. The placing of an isolated verb at the start of a sentence is an almost exclusively American phenomenon, now vanishingly rare even there. And when you see them for the first time, it’s almost impossible to parse them correctly. To me, they read automatically as imperatives, like a thunderous headline on an editorial demanding action (“Won’t someone – anyone – trap Coster’s arms dealer?”).

But in fact, they’re not imperatives, or some obscure form of passive construction; they’re even odder than that. What they are, as Fred explains, is perfectly normal subject-verb-object sentences, but with the subject of the sentence deleted. So the sense of “Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains in Upstate Raid” is “Police Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains In Upstate Raid”. Similarly, “Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer” means “Authorities Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer”.*

The construction is so alien to British eyes that you would think they would never appear over here. But in fact, a species of them does exist, in plain sight, on one of the most widely read sites in British journalism: the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame.

Indeed, alongside the very long headlines and very short standfirsts, they are one of the most distinctive features of Britain’s pre-eminent source of dispiriting online gossip. As we can see from these examples, taken from the site in a single visit, the Sidebar’s standfirsts – perhaps for lack of space if no other reason – frequently employ flying verbs (here “looked”, “got”, “added”, “opted”) to add detail to the story.

Of course, in these cases, they always follow sentences in which an agent has been clearly identified, and always seem to be in the past tense, which rules out their being read as imperatives. I don’t think British readers are ready for full flying verbs in 120-point caps on page one with no sign of a subject in sight. Write headlines no one can understand.

 

*Mr Coster, who made the News’s splash that day, was unknown to me, and also not the reason that that page has entered posterity (that was because of the picture story below, which is of Mayor LaGuardia** with a black eye after a confrontation in the street). But some tenuous Googling reveals that he was F Donald Coster, real name Phillip Musica, a notorious Prohibition rum-runner turned arms dealer whose criminal activities were at the centre of the McKesson & Robbins Scandal of 1938.

** After whom, of course, the airport is named.

If I had a hammer

21 Feb

Looks like the Bambino really put the good wood on this one:

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At least, I assume that’s what the headline means here. “Carpenters”?

This blog has enthused before about the (now vanished) propensity for American journalism to mass-produce new synonyms. So this – the most famous achievement (home run record) by the most famous player (Babe Ruth) on baseball’s most famous team (1927 Yankees) – might be expected to inspire the New York Daily News to great heights.

And so it proves: the home run record is the “circuit mark”, the record-breaking hit is the “bam”; on the breathless front page (“O, Babe!”), Ruth is “the great G Herman” and the home run a “stupendous swat”, cheered to the echo by “shouting customers” at Yankee Stadium. Inside, a young Paul Gallico, who would later go on to write The Poseidon Adventure, is in awe: “When Ruth conks one it stays conked. Of all the home runs I have seen him hit, only one could be called a high fly, and then it was so doggone high that no outfielder in the world could have snagged it. It went so blinkin’ high that it looked like of those things they drop off the Flatiron building for a publicity stunt.”

The enthusiasm for variation even extends to the main illustration on page 28: seven different portraits of Ruth with different captions, variously describing him as “George Herman Ruth”, “G.H. Ruth”, “George H. Ruth”, “Babe Ruth”, the “Colossus of Clout” and the “Sultan of Swat”.

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But still: “carpentered”? Although I’ve never heard it used as a verb, most dictionaries list it as one. Merriam-Webster’s entry is typical:

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But those definitions, and certainly number (2), suggest a kind of mundane repetition, or weary prefabrication, that hardly fits the hyperbolic tone of a newspaper “tickled silly” by all the excitement. So what’s the sense? Is it a failed neologism, perhaps meaning something like “to strike great blows with a hammer” or “to drive in the final nail”? Is it a piece of lost 1920s slang that readers would have understood?

Or is it just a slightly ironic way of saying in the headline, “look, he’s done it again“? Perhaps: Marshall Hunt’s match report, on the same page, at one point reads: “The coronation exercises took place tumultuously yesterday afternoon when that most famous of the famous, George Herman Ruth, patterned his 60th home run of the current season in the eighth inning and thereby established another world’s record.”

If so, though, it’s a slightly underwhelming verb to choose for a block caps main headline on a historic day, even if it does help fill out the measure. On balance, I think I prefer “Socko!”

Twenty-two dropouts

7 Feb

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It’s good to hear that Scotland will be supporting Mr O’Halloran despite his ailments. Oh no, wait. Ahaha: a laughable misunderstanding. Not “backs” as a third-person singular verb, but “backs” as an adjective, modifying “coach”. Now the sentence parses correctly: it did seem to be in want of a comma otherwise.

This is actually a bit of a hazard in rugby headlines: the number of nouns there are in the sport that can also be read as verbs. It must get tricky at times for sports subs working in tight measures. Not just “back”, but “forward” too: and “centre”, “prop”, “wing”, “maul”, “restart”  … There are probably others too, but I can’t immediately think of them.

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Wow, George must have really infuriated the management this time.

The 100-word headline

11 Oct

You’ve been around, and you’ve seen some things. You’ve seen the New York Times write four different heds for the same story and stack them all at the top of its front page; you’ve seen the Sun cause so much offence with a single word on the front that it pulled apart its page one and re-made it that same night. But I promise you’ve ever seen anything like this. Ladies and gentlemen: the 100-word headline.

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If you’re scoring at home it’s a 4/40/8 + 3/40/2 + 2/40/6 + 3/40/4. Twenty decks in all, with a yellow first line for a kicker. And it’s the biggest feature in the paper this week, so try to make it sing.

Still, I suppose at least there isn’t a standfirst.